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Shaken to his core: The untold story of Nolan’s unseen Auschwitz pictures

Steve Meacham
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Published: 12 July 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Sidney Nolan’s images of Auschwitz during the Eichmann trial have never been seen publicly in his homeland but will now be exhibited at Sydney Jewish Museum

It’s late July 1961, and Sidney Nolan, one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, is having lunch at home in London with a friend.

His companion, Al Alvarez, is the poetry editor of the British Sunday newspaper The Observer. Alvarez will later become a leading poet and man of letters.

Alvarez is Jewish. Nolan isn’t. Their conversation is dominated by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal and chief bureaucrat of the death camps.

Eichmann had been sensationally snatched by the Mossad from his hideaway in Buenos Aires a year earlier.

His trial - forever linked to two phrases: “the banality of evil” and “just following orders” – which has been front-page news around the world is coming to an end.

The poet puts a proposal to the painter: Let’s go to Auschwitz for an Observer article to coincide with Eichmann’s sentencing.

“(Al) is going to Poland,” Nolan wrote in his diary on July 23, 1961. “We talk about concentration camps. If we could paint the subject, it would be a duty to do so."

This is  the background to an extraordinary exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum featuring 50 Nolan works never exhibited as a group before in Australia: Shaken to his Core: The Untold Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz.

“Nolan and Alvarez went to Poland in late January 1962,” says Roslyn Sugarman, the museum’s head curator.

“The Auschwitz visit profoundly affected Nolan. He had been engaged with what was happening in the concentration camps as early as 1939, when Nolan read about the first concentration camps and wrote about them in his diary. His 1944 painting, Lublin, is now in the Art Gallery of South Australia.”

Art historian Andrew Turley writes that the artist completed Lublin as the Russian army pushed west toward the heart of (Hitler’s) Germany.

“Before the war, Lublin had been an important centre of Jewish culture. By the end, Lublin's Jewish population had been almost entirely eradicated. Many starved to death as they waited to be shot in the forest or packed shoulder to shoulder in the gas chambers.”

It took Nolan two weeks to accept the Alvarez offer.

He then began working “feverishly” on preparatory studies of Eichmann between November 27 and December 10, 1961 - two days before Eichmann was convicted of 15 counts of crimes against humanity. He was hanged in the early minutes of June 1, 1962.

After Eichmann had been sentenced to death on December 12, 1961, Nolan wrote in his diary: “I do not see how the question of the camps can be forever shelved … How can a disease be painted?”

He  began preparation studies of concentration camp victims, works on paper painted with a brush, all completed before New Year’s Day, 1962. 

Their titles - Skeletal Head in a German Concentration Camp, for example - forecast how affected Nolan was by the Holocaust, and what he planned to produce for The Observer.

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In the early days of January 1962, Turley writes, “suddenly close to 100 images poured out”.

The iconography of Nolan’s studies was obvious: “Over a million human beings, Jews, Poles and other nationalities, became smoke and ash in the Auschwitz ovens,” writes Turley.

“Faith was death and wheelbarrows were for the living to carry the dead to roll call. 

“With an economy of strokes, Sidney's pictures were as convincing as photographs without the slightest hint of enduring myth or ‘conquering response’. There was nothing to redeem the human race.”

For Nolan, who preferred to dwell on humanity’s brighter side, these images - painted quickly on paper - were an abrupt departure from the norm.

On January 29, 1962, Nolan and Alvarez stood under the infamous gates - Arbeit Macht Frei.

Although the details of the Holocaust were well known by then, both were shocked by the industrialisation of genocide Eichmann and his Nazi masters had put into place at Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Nolan, Alvarez later wrote in his colourful autobiography, was "upset less by the obvious horrors than by the orderliness of the camp’s layout. 

“The interiors of the barracks were dreadful – the tiers of bunks in which the prisoners slept, six men to a bunk, like battery hens waiting to be slaughtered – but the neat grids in which the buildings were arranged troubled him even more”.

Neither man fulfilled The Observer commission.

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“Nolan couldn’t psychologically cope with what he’d witnessed,” Sugarman says. “So, he refused the commission and never painted anything overtly about Auschwitz after the visit.”

Instead, his more than 150 preparatory studies were unseen by the public. 

Nolan loved to listen to music while he painted but worked in silence for months after going to Auschwitz

Some were in his private collection at The Rodd, his estate in the Marches, near the Welsh border, now home to the trust named after him. 

The works in the exhibition are on loan from Victoria’s Lady Nolan Estate (Nolan was knighted in 1981).

Turley, a soldier-turned-advertising director, who owns several Nolans and is the author of Nolan's Africa, uncovered the unseen Auschwitz works after spotting references in Nolan’s diaries.

“Andrew was interested in this part of Nolan’s life,” Sugarman says. “Reading Nolan’s diaries, Andrew realised the significance of these works.

“Some of the most telling insights come from Nolan’s own letters and diaries.

“He loved to listen to music while he painted but wrote that he (worked in silence) for months after going to Auschwitz.”

In the months after their harrowing visit, Alvarez sent his friend his first version of The Observer article.

“Dear Sid, Here's a draft, much scribbled on,” he wrote. “I hope you can make it out. I feel very dissatisfied with it. 

“So do, please, be as ruthless as you can with it. I can't waste this opportunity to get the thing said straight.”

Though Alvarez’s article was never published, Nolan kept a copy in his files at The Rodd, adding his own scribbled notes in the margin.

Twenty years later, when Alvarez was writing his autobiography, Nolan sent a letter to his friend: “Am I moving towards Auschwitz painting at last? 

“I hope not.”

Shaken to his Core: The Untold Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz. Sydney Jewish Museum, July 22 -Oct 23 

All images are untitled works by Sidney Nolan © The Sidney Nolan Trust all rights reserved, DACS / Copyright Agency 2022

READ MORE

Nolan's Auschwitz, an extract from Nolan's Africa by Andrew Turley, published by the Sidney Nolan Trust.

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